They handed out the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism the other day. All the recipients seem meritorious enough, but the worthies who chose the winners should not have bothered; 2007 ought to have been a year without prizes.
Call it the Pulitzer Pause. The special occasion when American journalism ceased, for one twelve-month month period, to heap prizes, awards, honors and distinctions on itself.
By doing what they always do at this time of year, the eighteen members of The Pulitzer Prize board affirmed that all is right with American journalism and all involved in it should continue to observe its practices and rituals. To do otherwise would come as a surprise to anyone who has read the names of the board members.
Six of the board members listed on the Pulitzer website are academics who must wage a daily struggle to stay out of cuckoo-land. Twelve others are newspaper editors, CEOs or publishers–with the exception of the New York Times‘s Thomas L. Friedman, whose track record is too well-known to need expansion here. In short, these are some of the chief people who have presided over the ruinous state of the news business. Their counterparts in broadcast journalism, who have as much to answer for as they, do not sit on the Pulitzer board. They sit on other boards and hand out similar awards and prizes, all of which, taken together, amount to little more than lavish self-praise for the newspaper and broadcast news industry.
It has been during the arc of the business and professional careers of these men and women that much, even most, of the nation’s young people have given up on the news. As the grand poobahs of journalism have failed to attract readers and viewers, they have also failed as businesspeople. Revenues in the newspaper industry decline, while profits are maintained by cutting staff, pulling back, shrinking the size of the pages, closing foreign bureaus and working harder to offer the diminishing news-consuming public a qualitatively ever more meager product.
The most outstanding accomplishment of this cohort of spearless news-industry leaders has been to lose the trust, confidence and interest of a generation of Americans. Their crowning achievement, of course, is Iraq. The coverage leading up to and during the Iraq War is a self-inflicted wound for which journalism will be paying for years to come. And the disaster continues, as the handling of George W. Bush’s “surge” illustrates.
It remains to be seen how the lost millions of readers and viewers can be won back. As of now that’s not going to happen because mainstream media stands confused and baffled. There is no business plan, there is no news plan, there is no plan, there is no strong voice, there is no moral center.
Under the circumstances a Pulitzer board made of tougher and more imaginative people might have suggested we take a holiday from self-praise. They might have proposed to go on retreat for a year of self-examination, a year in which all of journalism–and not just the lowly reporters–huddle together, not to utter empty mea culpas but to think through how the lost generation can be reclaimed, how the business can be righted, how the public trust can be re-won.
But that will not happen. So go ahead, pass out the awards and the prizes, guys, and forget the historic truth: When we most needed it, journalism failed us.